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How Teenage Engineering created a ‘loudspeaker for tree-huggers with golden ears’

The Swedish company teamed up with researchers for their latest product, announcing the release of a new wireless speaker which it designed using holocellulose, a complex mixture of wood byproducts.

How Teenage Engineering created a ‘loudspeaker for tree-huggers with golden ears’

When Swedish company Teenage Engineering got into the wireless speaker game, it sought to reinvent a classic—the OD-11. Back in 1974, the iconic Swedish sound pioneer Stig Carlsson had created a high fidelity loudspeaker in the shape of a small cube. The OD-11 positioned the subwoofer (bass) and tweeter (treble) cones so as to point sound diagonally upward and outward. Its warm, rich sound appealed to audiophiles, while its design seemed futuristic and forward-thinking. So when Teenage Engineering, highly regarded for its OP-1 synthesizer and sampler’s design and sound aesthetics, released its updated OD-11 in 2014, it seemed appropriate.

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This past month, Teenage Engineering announced the release of a new OD-11. All of the internals—a built-in computer, 100-watt amplifier, and WiFi to accommodate all devices—remain the same, but Teenage Engineering redesigned the speaker to be sustainable. Built with holocellulose, a complex mixture of polysaccharides that remain after the removal of lignin (a natural polymer) from wood, the company calls it a “loudspeaker for tree-huggers with golden ears.”

Teenage Engineering’s Marcus Blom tells Fast Company that they wanted to push the envelope of sustainability. To do this, they started with a basic question: what happens beyond a product’s lifetime? Electronics, in particular, are difficult to recycle, with various plastics, metals, and other materials.

“We do a lot of prototyping and know quite well what is possible with the materials that are available on the market,” says Kouthoofd. “What we don’t know is what is possible to do with the materials that are not available on the market yet, so we invited RISE research [to collaborate]… our first step in designing for disassembly, but not the last.”

For the initial meeting, Dina Dedic, Senior Research Associate at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, brought a box to Teenage Engineering’s headquarters filled with a number of different sample materials. Each sample showed what was possible with wood, including iridescent films, holocellulose, and a number of other wood derivatives that Dina and her colleagues were working on at RISE.

“The newly developed holocellulose has amazing properties when it comes to sustainability and it’s aesthetically really beautiful,” says Dedic. “At that time, it was just a small, thin sample out of the lab. We decided to try and make a lot more of it in order to make an Oriented Strand Board [or flake board].”

At that time, the holocellulose was hypothetically rigid enough for a speaker cabinet. In short order, Teenage Engineering’s designers began working with RISE on cabinet specifications. After crafting enough materials and manufacturing an OSB, the designers created the holocellulose OD-11. After testing, Teenage Engineering and RISE realized the holocellulose OSB was as robust as other flake boards. Blom says the designers also learned that the holocellulose didn’t yellow with age, and that the wood components were easy to recycle and repurpose.

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“The most exciting part with the holocellulose when it comes to design for us is its sustainable properties paired with a beautiful aesthetic,” Dedic says. “[It] comes from wood from sustainably managed Swedish forests. The process of making holocellulose has low energy consumption and researchers are working on recycling chemicals and water.”

When in use, holocellulose looks like pure white wood. But, in the right conditions, Dedic says that it can be disintegrated and made into another plant-based product, like transparent film or paper. Typically, composites made of natural fiber and plastics must undergo a separation process with high temperatures and solvents, which can damage materials and ultimately impact their second life. With holocellulose OD-11, no separation of plastics, dye, or paint is necessary.

As for the holocellulose OD-11’s sound, Blom says it is as good as any of the other Teenage Engineering speaker cabinets. In short, it is just like the other modern OD-11 speakers, though far more sustainable. But sustainability work is far from finished at Teenage Engineering. The company believes there is much more they can do to push the envelope. And, hopefully, the holocellulose OD-11 will have a much broader impact, influencing product design far beyond music technology.

“If this speaker can show manufacturers that materials such as holocellulose are worth investing in, it will be made available to the world and have a real impact,” Teenage Engineering co-founder Jesper Kouthoofd tells Fast Company. “We will keep our dialog with RISE open and keep exploring.”

“What if you could make a material hard enough to sustain CNC milling?” Kouthoofd muses. “Then we could replace the OP–1’s [sampler and synthesizer] aluminum chassis with sustainably sourced wood. Wouldn’t that be something?”

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About the author

DJ Pangburn is a writer and editor with bylines at Vice, Motherboard, Creators, Dazed & Confused and The Quietus. He's also a pataphysician, psychogeographer and filmmaker.

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